Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Primary source: Interviews

Pennsylvania Railroad Interview Transcripts

PRR Testimony about the Safety of the South Fork Dam

Statement of W. N. Hays

Q. What was said about the reservoir breaking?

A. Some said it was liable to break, and others said there was no danger. In the mean time, Johnstown Lumber Company’s boom had broken up on Stony Creek, up above Johnstown, and the drift was coming down very rapidly, and we with our force were trying to keep the bridge clear; - - that is, the stone bridge west of Johnstown, and we worked away there until about 4:10. The water had receded, we believe, about two inches. About 4:10, our attention was attracted by people shouting, and I saw this bank of water and drift coming down the Conemaugh, almost like a wall. About 4:10, it crossed the town before it reached our bridge, and went up into what is called Kernville, a suburb of Johnstown, on Stony Creek, then after it got level there, it came down to our bridge. It was a very short time, but we saw the course of it. The houses were packed so close together that you could scarcely see the water. There were a few houses went under the arches of our bridge, only a few and then it stopped, but it ran over the bridge, over the coping a foot or more deep for fifteen or twenty minutes. Then it broke through the approach east of the bridge and carried that away. I was at the west end of the bridge when I saw the wall of water coming. It seemed to me it couldn’t be less than twenty feet, and I don’t doubt it was thirty feet deep. It spread out from one side of the hill to the other, and came crushing and dashing ahead.

Q. How far did it come before it turned and went toward Kernville?

A. It apparently crossed at Gautier works at Johnstown and ran straight across to Kernville to Stony Creek.

Q. Now, what do you think was the reason for the change in the course of this volume of water?

A. It got up as far as its level would carry it. Then it receded back. It was the striking against the hill that turned the course of the current towards Kernville. From the Johnstown bluff, it took a straight course through Clinton and Market streets. It took its course through what is called the Kernville Bridge.

Statement of M. Trump, Assistant Supt., Pittsburgh Division, P. R. R.

A. The train sheet shows that we arrived at Johnstown at 2:27, after which there is no record of the run of this train. On arrival at Johnstown, we found the town flooded; -- [ answering a question about the time his train arrived in Johnstown]

Q. To what extent do you judge the water was up on the houses?

A. Well, the water, as far as I could see from the track, was up about to the second floor, almost within a foot of the second floor, and the people were all in the second stories of their houses, including our Agents’ family at the station, and right at the station, the water was up at the top of the fence there, which was about four feet high, and that portion of the town is considerably higher than the balance of the town, so that I judge the water in the main part of the town must have been eight or nine feet deep. We stopped at the bridge, and found Mr. Hays work train at that point, and we got out, made an examination of the abutments ---

Q. You are speaking now of the stone bridge below Johnstown?

A. Yes, sir; -- and we found there was a considerable amount of timber, such as logs, etc., coming down from the Johnstown Lumber Company’s boom, and lodging against the bridge. The boom which had already broken, was hanging through the piers at that time. We then arranged for the work train gang to go down, and see what they could do to keep the drift passing through the piers. We then pushed on to the telegraph tower.

Q. Where is that located?

A. Right at the station at Johnstown; and we ran across Mr. Deckert, the Agent, who informed us that he had a report the dam was liable to break at any minute, and he said the people of Johnstown did not seem to realize the thing, didn’t believe it, and paid no attention to it: that they had heard it so often that they placed no confidence in the report. . .

Statement of F. S. Deckert

Q. As far as you know, did the people in the service of the Penna Railroad Company at Johnstown, including yourself, do all they could to notify people of the danger of that dam breaking?

A. Well, yes, I believe they did; all that there was any use of notifying.

Q. Well, as you received the news by these dispatches, you made known to the people about the place what was likely to take place, or what the surmise was, and you telephoned that over to the general office, but I understand you to say that even with all that notice and warning, the people could not have gotten out of their houses on account of the water being so high in the houses?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. And the people were driven up to the upper stories of their houses?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. So that really the warning could not have been taken advantage of?

A. No, and if it had been earlier, it could not. Then it would not have made any difference what warning some got, they wouldn’t have gotten out anyway.

Statement of John F. Stormer

Q. Did you hear anything said there at Conemaugh about the dam being unsafe?

A. Oh, yes, that was talked of a good bit that morning. Some thought if it broke out, it would sweep the whole place out. I heard it two or three times when I was taking the goods out of my house. The water was up in the house along about one o’clock. There was some said the report was that the dam was liable to break at any minute, and to prepare for the worst. I put a man to watch the channel while I was taking my goods out, so when he notified me, I could run.

Q. Did you see it coming?

A. I believe I was the first man in Conemaugh that seen that; that is, a resident of Conemaugh.

Q. What did it look like?

A. It looked like a mountain of trees.

Q. How high do you think it was?

A. Oh it looked to me about 60 or 80 feet high. I looked up in the mountain there where the channel is narrow; where the river hasn’t much of a channel;

Q. And how wide was it?

A. I couldn’t just tell. It filled up the valley and swept over everything.

Statement of T. H. Watt

Q. Where were you when the flood came?

A. I was at home. My house was on Lincoln Street.

Q. Was your house flooded?

A. Yes, sir, we stayed on the roof until the worst got past, and then got back into the attic and remained there until Saturday morning. Saturday morning, we started out a little hole we cut in the roof, and climbed out through other houses and got up town and got a lunch. We got down over the river by a boat over to the station, and got over there about four o’ clock Saturday evening.

Q. How high was the water before the dam broke?

A. I suppose the water was ten feet deep around our house when the flood broke.

Q. With reference to the locality of your house and the station house, above or below in Johnstown?

A. Our house stood a great deal lower than the station, directly opposite the station.

Q. Had you a family?

A. I had my wife and grandmother.

Q. And there was ten feet of water in that house?

A. Yes, sir. Our house is just a new house, and the man that built it put it about six feet above the foundation, and we thought the water never would touch it, but we had at least four feet of water on the lower floor before the dam broke. I waded down stairs at 11 o’clock, and then the water got so high it was coming in over the tops of my gum boots, and it kept on raising until half-past three, when I know at the least calculation, it was four feet deep. The flood struck us at 4:07.

Statement of Fred. Brentlinger

Q. Did the flood strike you when you were under way? [he was freight conductor on a train as it was hit by the flood]

A. When I jumped off the engine, it wasn’t quite at me yet, and I went for the hill, and it was so slippery when I would get up a piece I would slip back; the second time the water got to me, and of course I went back the second time, and then a big wave came right in there, and it raised me right up and I got hold of a limb of a tree, and as the water raised, I went along from one brush to another. It was horrible, I tell you. There was a draught of very strong air ahead of the water, that I believe was most worse then the water, for when that air struck me, it seemed to just lift me right off of the ground. A man could see it; it just looked like a blue heat you know. I don’t know whether it was imagination or not but I thought I could see things falling before the water got to them. It made a terrible noise; you would think the whole earth was being torn up. The rest of the fellows had all been away from the train, and they got away nice to the hill.

Samuel S. Miller, brakeman on the Day Express

Q. Where were you when the big wave came?

A. I was partly up on the hill.

Q. What were you doing up there?

A. Well, I was told that it was coming, and I got up on the hill for my own safety.  I had gone to the Agent at Conemaugh, he was in the office at Conemaugh station.

Q. Who is he?

A. E. R. Stewart and I borrowed the key from him for the water closet at the station, and I went in the water closet, and I think I was reading a Commercial-Gazette at the time when I heard the big whistle, and not knowing of any freight moving, I first thought probably it might be a freight engine that was to assist first Day Express up the mountain; I thought maybe they were alarming the passengers to get on the train and wondered why it wasn't a passenger engine whistle. The next thought that came to me was that South Fork dam had broken. I made a hasty exit, and when I got outside, a young fellow came along and said that was what was wrong. He seemed to be in a great hurry, and I asked him if South Fork dam had broken, and he replied, "Yes, so people say," and it seems to me, I told him to run, and I ran too.

Q. You broke for the hill?

A. Yes, sir, I broke for the hill.

Q. You didn't go to your train?

A. No, sir; I got up on the hill probably 110 yards from the station and looked back, and could see that the water had come. I could see that the water was between the houses at that time. I concluded I wasn't high enough, and I went up onto still higher ground.

Q. You didn't climb a tree?

A. No, sir.

Q. Why didn't you go to your train and help get your passengers out?

A. Well, for my own safety. From the descriptions I had heard I concluded I had better be on the hill.

Q. You might have gone to your train if you had tried?

A. I could have, but the question was whether I could then have gone to the hill or not.

Q. You believed your life was in danger, did you?

A. Yes, sir.

Many more statements from the Pennsylvania Railroad investigation, including PRR President Robert Pitcarin, are available on the Johnstown Flood National Memorial web site.

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